Friday, December 28, 2012

An Open Letter to Media-bashers

I have been a journalist nearly all my adult life: since 1978, when, having just turned 24, I took my first job as a reporter at a small newspaper in Massachusetts. So I am not new to criticism of the media. I have mostly welcomed it, particularly the constructive criticisms, which motivate me and my colleagues to strive to improve what we do. Critics help us be accountable.

But in recent years, a particularly strident criticism of a so-called monolithic “mainstream media” has flourished on certain blogs, talk shows and social media sites -- and even on the reader comment sections of many of these same “mainstream media” outlets, including my own. People are exercising their First Amendment rights, which is a good thing.

What is not a good thing is commentary that holds the “mainstream media” to be comprised of lying scoundrels pushing a traitorous agenda, to put it bluntly. Not nearly as bluntly as some of the rants I’ve witnessed, but, yes, bluntly.

My educated guess is that I have known many more members of the media -- personally and professionally -- than any of these critics, some of whom embrace the cowardly approach of anonymous commentary. I have worked for almost 35 years with journalists, hundreds in total, and thus have been intimately exposed to their methods, their personalities and their beliefs. Some are now at large outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Some remain at regional or local companies. Many sit alongside me today at 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. A few have left the profession.

I do not know of a single one who has lied in his or her journalism or pushed an unsavory agenda. More on agenda in a moment.

Do we in the media make mistakes? Yes, just as mechanics, lawyers, clerks and pretty much everybody makes mistakes. People are fallible.

Should we be called on these mistakes? Of course. And we are, regularly.

Every newspaper with which I am familiar not only accepts corrections but solicits them. My own, The Providence Journal, runs a notice every day on page 2 stating that we willingly correct all errors (and we do), with instructions on how to report them; daily, we publish letters to the editor and allow readers to post online. Still dissatisfied? You can submit an op-ed piece or demand a meeting with an editor or reporter. Does your local bank or grocer go this far to give you a say?

And when confronted with an error, every reporter I have ever known not only has set the record straight, in print or on air -- in public, and, in the internet era, in perpetuity -- he or she has been embarrassed and troubled at the failure. Then learned from it and moved on, vowing to do better. These are people of honor who would do this.

There is, of course, that handful of actual lying journalists, although, to the best of my knowledge, I am not personally acquainted with any. Nearly all are eventually caught and exiled from the business by –– well, by fellow journalists, the editors who employed them. The most recent example is ex-Cape Cod Times reporter Karen Jeffrey, who was fired by the newspaper late this year when an internal review confirmed that she had fabricated characters and events in several of her stories. What I find most revealing about this episode is that the editor and publisher of The Cape Cod Times not only fired Jeffery, but published a front-page story explaining what had happened and apologizing to their readers. (Disclosure: I worked at The Cape Cod Times from 1979 - 1981, leaving before Jeffrey was hired.) 

This shameful story of one lying reporter at one small newspaper became national news. It did precisely because such instances are so rare.

Now, about this monolithic “mainstream media.”

There is no such thing. There never was. As long as the First Amendment holds, there never will be.

True, there are outlets that generally favor certain stories and political philosophies over others. Fox v. MSNBC is a well-known example. But is this monolithic when America has thousands of publications and broadcast outlets -- and now, in the Internet era, so many blogs and web sites -- each with its own raison d'ĂȘtre, and each managed by different local owners, parent companies, or regional and national chains? Hardly. If you want monolithic “mainstream media,” look to North Korea, Iran or the old Soviet Union, not here. Different blood runs through American veins, and has since before our independence was declared.

The American press took root at a time, the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the primary goal of many editors and writers -- perhaps most -- was to advance specific politics, not offer balance, opposing points of view, or even what we now call news. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets and other publications relentlessly pushed independence from England; in New York, the Gazeteer espoused loyalty to the crown. The Founding Fathers adopted the Bill of Rights with the realization that a free press meant that those who managed and owned the presses (they were literally that: printing presses) would continue with their overtly partisan writing. And they did, as Hamiltonian readers of Federalist publications and Jeffersonian readers of Republican papers, two groups frequently at odds, could have attested.

The advent of the telegraph changed journalism, as did the establishment of the Associated Press in 1846, both helping to create the concept of news as we more or less understand it today -- and diluting, if not removing, the agenda-driven philosophy of the late colonial and early republic periods. Later technologies -- radio, TV and digital -- had their profound effects. So did the rising wealth of the industrializing nation, which supported increased advertising revenues, which in turn supported larger and more diverse staffs -- and many more publications, stations, networks, wire services and more. Not exactly a monolith, then or now. (For an exhaustive history of the American press, I recommend Christopher B. Daly’s COVERING AMERICA: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism)

But, yes, some outlets today do have an agenda, broadly speaking -- an echo, if you will, of the opinionated press that Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington and Madison knew well. Fox offers a conservative view, MSNBC a liberal one; The Wall Street Journal generally speaks for the business community, The New York Times for the intelligentsia, the New York Post for the working man. Is there anyone who follows the news who doesn’t know this? But many more newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets fall into more neutral territory, with diverse and sometimes conflicting points of view expressed throughout their content –– and pure dogma relegated, for the most part, to columns and the editorial and op-ed sections, clearly identified as such.   

What media-bashers really mean by agenda is: something they read or hear that challenges or refutes their own views. I suspect what they really would like is their own monolith, where opposition did not exist.

This holds true for people on both sides of the political divide, but in my experience, it’s more commonly an assertion by some on the far right. They see a broad conspiracy by large numbers of individual journalists who, they believe, are determined to undermine the nation by promulgating “socialist” policies. They assert that “mainstream media” reporters, editors, publishers and broadcasters want to destroy marriage, swell the welfare rolls, ruin health care, take all the guns away, flood the country with illegal immigrants, over-regulate business, punish the rich, demonize the Republicans, ridicule the conservatives, spread myths about the environment, remove God from everywhere, and the list goes on.

And to that end, they believe that “mainstream” journalists twist, distort and lie. What they really mean is that only members of any medium who are lock-step with their own opinions are truthful.

I have yet to hear a credible explanation of how so many journalists, spread across this sprawling country of 315 million, could conspire on such a scale. Perhaps by their oaths at the annual Skull and Bones gathering? Seriously, if there is one thing I have learned about my colleagues, it’s that virtually without exception, they are stubborn (and sometimes ornery) individualists. If you have ever attended a meeting of a news staff, you know what I mean. Individualism seems to be written into our genes.

Providence Journal newsroom meeting
With individualism comes conviction. And while there are certainly aimless journalists, most of the many I’ve known hold strong beliefs about important things. They did not get into journalism to achieve celebrity or become rich, Lord knows.

These people I know believe in a well-informed citizenry. They believe in righting wrongs, and in giving voice to the voiceless, and in advancing social justice. They believe in exposing corruption, in explaining new or difficult subjects, in writing what has sometimes been called the first draft of history. They believe in the value of sports, entertainment, the arts, fashion, and good health, fun and food. They believe in the power of storytelling and a journalist's vital role in sustaining the public discourse, our birthright as Americans. They believe in taking readers and viewers (and themselves) to places they ordinarily don’t go. Some put their lives at risk: war correspondents, notably, who believe that only independent reporting gets to the truth.

These are the women and men of the mainstream media I know. They are people of professional integrity engaged in commendable enterprise. In their chosen field, they are disciplined, hard-working, energetic, intellectually curious, skeptical, sometimes cantankerous or tempestuous, and deeply committed to a bedrock principle of our democracy: free speech.

I thank and salute them.


Some other recent posts of interest:

My Dad and Airplanes.
Some Time in Maine...
The Growing Season: The Story of Frank Beazley.


  1. I've seen excellent reporting of important local news first hand. This reporter's article, (Linda Borg, from the Providence Journal), is helping to right a long-term wrong at a public school.
    I am grateful to her and the Journal for taking on the story. The students, who have been harmed for 2-3 years, are too.
    What people may not realize is that we, the public, have to give a hand. Call and report things to the media so that they *can* report it to the public. Only then can we right those wrongs.
    Reporters, keep up the good work! There's a silent majority that still appreciates what you do everyday!

  2. Appreciate that, Deborah. Thanks for commenting.

  3. The idea that your corporate parent, Belo, is not a loudspeaker for the Texas GOP which maintain it tax rates beneficial to such a conglomeration is nonsense. Your paper maintains the Belo party line, as firmly enforced a Stalinism, allowing the cheapest of journalism to be printed off the AP wire. When Belo took over, it ruined what had been two magnificent papers that had been a part of the effort of create a record akin to that generated by the New York Times or Boston Globe. The proof is in the pudding. How much growth has the Providence Newspaper Guild seen in the last decade? How many up-and-coming writers from Providence have an honest shot of jumping into the big leagues of Fountain Street? Why did the Providence Phoenix print a cover story last month giving point-for-point tips to the BeloJo about content, internet possibilities, and revenue stream improvement? Why does still look like it has an infant for a webmaster? Why does our daily front page now feature more journalism from other papers in the Belo network, AP, and Reuters than it does actual local writers? And what about the blatant pro-corporate charter school model constantly being foisted on the public in an ongoing effort to trash state and local unions, men and women who make no offense other than actually needing to be paid for maintaining the ability of rich white male reporters to sit in comfort at their annual Newpaper Guild Follies dinners without duress. Are you serious?

    I am reminded of the sort of double-think that the Communist Party used to pull when flipping between anti-Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and appeasement following the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact.